Imagine you’re a business traveler running late after a meeting in downtown Manhattan. Your flight home leaves in an hour from John F. Kennedy International Airport. If you are at all familiar with the geography, you know you’ll miss it–unless, of course, you could take a helicopter from midtown to JFK and then walk straight onto your airplane.
In service since 2006, US Helicopter is the only scheduled helicopter operator in the country. The company offers regular weekday shuttle service among Manhattan, JFK and Newark Liberty International airports, and Bridgeport, Conn. Given the often nightmarish traffic that grips the New York metropolitan area, it’s no wonder the concept is catching on.
While similar services have come and gone in the past, Jerry Murphy, the company’s CEO and president, said times have changed. “We did a great deal of research into understanding the complexity of what other operators went through,” he said. “The equipment they were using, the cost structure that they were involved in, what they were charging for their tickets, what their volume was, and we see a different set of circumstances today.” Murphy cited the example of New York Airways, which in its heyday in the early 1970s carried 400,000 passengers a year. “The market size was probably something like 28 to 30 million passengers [annually at the major metro area airports]. Today when you look at the three New York City area airports [Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark], the market size is 106 million passengers, so there has been huge growth in the passenger level.” Improved efficiency and reliability of modern helicopters are also cited by Murphy as contributors to a healthier bottom line.
After five years of development and planning, US Helicopter began service with a fleet of four low-time ex-corporate Sikorsky S-76s, converted into eight-passenger configuration. “We obviously wanted to start off with new equipment, but if we were going to do it, that would delay the plan,” Murphy said. “I guess obviously the helicopter manufacturers are doing very well because you can put an order in today for an S-76C++, and it’ll be three years down the road before you can take delivery.”
The company eventually opted for the S-76 because of the ease of support–US Helicopter bases most of its fleet in Connecticut, not far from Sikor-sky’s headquarters.
While US Helicopter declined to disclose its seat occupancy or annual revenue statistics, Murphy said he is pleased with the progress the business has shown in a short time. “In the beginning we didn’t tell anybody that we were going to run high-load factors,” he said. “You have to ramp it up. Our repeat customer base is probably 99 percent. Once they’ve tried it, people come back.”
US Helicopter’s strategy revolves around customers benefiting from the conveniences the service offers, with the obvious speed advantages over ground transportation being just one example, Murphy said. “Today with Continental Airlines, for example, we have a code-share agreement, meaning if you have a Continental Airlines flight from point A to point C, you can actually book from Hong Kong on Continental to TSS, which is the three-letter code for the East 34th Street Heliport [in Manhattan]. You can book your ticket on Continental with the flight number, and if you are a business or first-class passenger flying on Continental, the helicopter ride to the heliport is free,” Murphy said. For others, the cost ranges from $99 to $159 for a one-way flight, which does not include an additional $10.50 security fee. Currently, US Helicopter has arrangements with Continental and Delta, and it recently signed an agreement with all-business class carrier Eos. The company expects to announce more partnerships over the next several months.
In terms of time savings and convenience, US Helicopter’s service seems unbeatable for business travelers. Passengers using one of their airline partners are checked in to their flight upon arriving at the heliport, and baggage is automatically transferred at the airport and checked through to the final destination.
Due to the security measures enacted after 9/11, US Helicopter is able to offer its passengers yet another bonus–the heliports are TSA-approved for screening, meaning passengers won’t have to wait on security lines at the airport. “You get out to the airport and you could be behind 500 people or a thousand people. It depends on what time of the day and what airport you are in,” Murphy said. “In our case, our helicopters hold eight people, so in the worst case you are going to be behind maybe seven others.”
The flights from Manhattan to Newark or Kennedy take less than 10 minutes. The helicopters land on their airline partner’s tarmac and passengers are taken by shuttle bus to a gate on the secure side of the airport where they can then head directly to their departure gate.
As road congestion increases around New York City, Murphy said he believes the value of his company’s services will grow as well. “In New York City, there has not been a new road, tunnel or bridge or anything constructed in the last 50 plus years, but the population has grown and the traffic has grown at a significantly higher rate. We really think that the times have changed, and the product we are offering is more beneficial to the business traveler.”
Murphy has identified some 10 other cities in the U.S. that he thinks could benefit from a service like US Helicopter, and when asked about expansion plans, he said that while still concentrating on the success of the New York operation, US Helicopter could be in several other cities within the next two to three years.